The Pentagon's Brain

The Pentagon's Brain

Annie Jacobsen

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When Christopher Davis learned that the Soviets were developing a genetically modified, antibiotic-resistant strain of plague, he interpreted it to mean one thing. “You choose plague because you’re going to take out the other person’s country,” Davis said. “Kill all the people, then move in and take over the land. Full stop. That’s what it is about.”

In 1996, the CIA provided President Clinton with reports on the biological weapons programs believed to be in existence inside North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Libya, and Syria—all still classified in 2015.

If DARPA is the Pentagon’s brain, defense contractors are its beating heart. President Eisenhower said that the only way Americans could keep defense contractors in check was through knowledge. “Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”

One of the ultimate goals of Chimera, Alibek said, was to create a monster hybrid of smallpox and Ebola. Alibek warned his handlers that the Soviets had sold secrets about genetically modified bioweapons to Libya, Iran, Iraq, India, Cuba, and former Soviet bloc countries in eastern Europe.

Marshall served as director of the Office of Net Assessment, created by the Nixon White House in 1973 and dedicated to forecasting future wars.

There was a loophole to be explored, Teller suggested. “Explosions below a kiloton cannot be detected and identified by any of the methods considered realistic by any of the delegations at the Geneva Conference,” he wrote. The United States could secretly conduct low-yield tests. Yes, it would be cheating, but the Russians could not be trusted, and surely they would cheat too.

Most historical accounts of the use of nonlethal weapons in the United States cite the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 as a turning point. The act established the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA), a federal agency within the U.S. Department of Justice designed to assist state police forces across the nation in upgrading their riot control hardware and officer-training programs. The act also provided $12 billion in funding over a period of ten years. Police forces across America began upgrading their military-style equipment to include riot control systems, helicopters, grenade launchers, and machine guns. The LEAA famously gave birth to the special weapons and tactics concept, or SWAT, with the first units created in Los Angeles in the late 1960s. “These units,” says an LAPD historian, “provided security for police facilities during civil unrest.” But what has not been established before this book is that much of this equipment was researched and developed by ARPA in the jungles of Vietnam and Thailand during the Vietnam War.

In one instance, a group of Iraqi soldiers stepped out from a hiding place and waved the white flag of surrender at the eye of a television camera attached to a drone that was hovering nearby. This became the first time in history that a group of enemy soldiers was recorded surrendering to a machine.

In 1963, weather modification was still legal.

It was a defining moment in the history of weapons development and the future of man and machine. A computer had reported that a thousand-strong Soviet ICBM attack was under way. And a human, in this case Air Marshal Charles Roy Slemon, used his judgment to intervene and to overrule. At J-Site, the ARPA 474L System Program Office worked with technicians to teach the BMEWS computers to reject echoes from the moon.

ARPA engineers in Licklider’s Behavioral Sciences Program office believed that computers could be used to model social behavior. Data could be collected and algorithms could be designed to analyze the data and to build models. This led Licklider to another seminal idea. What if, based on the data collected, you could get the computer to predict human behavior? If man can predict, he can control.

Taylor left Herzfeld’s office and headed back to his own. He later recalled the astonishment he felt when he looked at his watch. “Jesus Christ,” he thought. “That only took twenty minutes.” Even more consequential was the idea of network redundancy—making sure no single computer could take the system down—that emerged from that meeting. It is why in 2015, no one organization, corporation, or nation can own or completely control the global system of interconnected computer networks known as the Internet. To think it came out of that one meeting, on the fly.

Gouré’s particular area of expertise was post-apocalypse civil defense

The RAND report was called “Combat in Hell: A Consideration of Constrained Urban Warfare.” It began with the prescient words: “Historical advice is consistent. Sun Tzu counseled that ‘the worst policy is to attack cities.’” Accordingly, avoid urban warfare.

Goldblatt hired a biotechnology firm to develop a pain vaccine. “It works with the body’s inflammatory response that is responsible for pain,” Goldblatt explained in 2014. The way the vaccine would work is that, if a soldier got shot, he would experience “ten to thirty seconds of agony then no pain for thirty days.

Is the world transforming into a war zone and America into a police state, and is it DARPA that is making them so?

The person largely responsible for connecting these nodes was an electrical engineer named Robert Kahn. At the time, Kahn called what he was working on an “internetwork.” Soon it would be shortened to Internet.

Charles Townes said to me, and I mentioned it earlier in this book, was that he was personally inspired to invent the laser after reading the science-fiction novel The Garin Death Ray, written by Alexei Tolstoi in 1926. It is remarkable to think how powerful a force science fiction can be. That fantastic, seemingly impossible ideas can inspire people like Charles Townes to invent things that totally transform the real world.

Whales and dolphins don’t sleep; as mammals, they would drown if they did. Unlike humans, they are somehow able to control the lobes of their left and right brains so that while one lobe sleeps, the opposite lobe stays awake, allowing the animal to swim

Given advances in the technology of detection, American and Soviet scientists now agreed that it was possible to cease nuclear testing. If one side cheated, they would be caught.

INSCOM’s commanding officer, Lieutenant General Keith Alexander. At Fort Belvoir, Alexander ran his operations out of a facility known as the Information Dominance Center, with an unusual interior design that deviated significantly from traditional military decor. The Information Dominance Center had been designed by Academy Award–winning Hollywood set designer Bran Ferren to simulate the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, from the Star Trek television and film series. There were ovoid-shaped chairs, computer stations inside highly polished chrome panels, even doors that slid open with a whooshing sound. Alexander would sit in the leather captain’s chair, positioned in the center of the command post, where he could face the Information Dominance Center’s twenty-four-foot television monitor. General Alexander loved the science-fiction genre. INSCOM staff even wondered if the general fancied himself a real-life Captain Kirk.

during the war on terror, the Pentagon began seeking ideas from science-fiction writers, most notably a civilian organization called the SIGMA group

DARPA makes the future happen. Industry, public health, society, and culture all transform because of technology that DARPA pioneers. DARPA creates, DARPA dominates, and when sent to the battlefield, DARPA destroys.

Climate change is, and always has been, “a driver of wars,” he believed. Drought, pestilence, flood, and famine push people to the limits of human survival, often resulting in war for control over what few resources remain.


The ability to genetically engineer pathogens had raised the threat level. For use as a weapon, the possibilities were limitless. “If you were to mix Ebola with the communicability of measles to create a pathogen that would continue to alter itself in such a way to evade treatment,” wrote Block, the rate of Ebola’s transmission and infectivity would skyrocket.

A revolution is not a revolution unless it comes with an element of surprise.

For the Pentagon, the antiwar protests were a command and control nightmare. For ARPA it meant the acceleration of a “nonlethal weapons” program to research and develop ways to stop demonstrators through the use of painful but not deadly force.

Licklider envisioned a day when a computer would serve as a human’s “assistant.” The machine would “answer questions, perform simulation modeling, graphically display results, and extrapolate solutions for new situations from past experience.” Like John von Neumann, Licklider saw similarities between the computer and the brain, and he saw a symbiotic relationship between man and machine, one in which man’s burdens, or “rote work,” could be eased by the machine. Humans could then devote their time to making important decisions, Licklider said.

When students learned IDA was still operating on campus, protestors initiated a five-day siege of Von Neumann Hall, spray painting anti-Nixon graffiti across the front of the building, engaging with police officers, and chanting, “Kill the computer!”

Licklider and Taylor co-wrote an essay in 1968 in which they predicted, “In a few years, men will be able to communicate more effectively through a machine than face to face.” By 2009, more electronic text messages would be sent each day than there were people on the planet.

The way Godel saw it, the French colonialists were trying to fight the Viet Minh guerrillas according to colonial rules of war. But the South Vietnamese, who were receiving weapons and training from the French forces, were actually fighting a different kind of war, based on different rules. Guerrilla warfare was irrational. It was asymmetrical. It was about cutting off the enemy’s head to send a message back home. When, in the spring of 1950, William Godel witnessed guerrilla warfare firsthand in Vietnam, it shifted his perspective on how the United States would need to fight future wars. Guerrilla warfare involved psychological warfare. To Godel, it was a necessary component for a win.

second office at the Pentagon called the Behavioral Sciences Program, an office that would eventually take on much more Orwellian tasks related to surveillance programs. This office grew out of a study originally commissioned by Herb York, titled “Toward a Technology of Human Behavior for Defense Use.” This study examined how computers, or “man-machine systems,” could best be used in conflict zones. The results, today, are far-reaching.

For the general population, real-world lasers, death rays, and directed-energy weapons were scientifically impossible to grasp. Science fiction was not so hard.

in the event of a Soviet nuclear attack, there was a fully formed plan in place to keep the president and his cabinet alive. An executive branch version of the Station 70 bunker had recently been completed six miles north of Camp David, just over the Pennsylvania state line. This underground command center, called the Raven Rock Mountain Complex, was buried inside a mountain of granite, giving the president protection equivalent to that of walls a thousand feet thick. The Raven Rock complex, also called Site R, had been designed to withstand a direct hit from a 15-megaton bomb.

50 minute drive from my hometown

Castle Bravo had been built according to the “Teller-Ulam” scheme—named for its co-designers, Edward Teller and Stanislaw Ulam—which meant, unlike with the far less powerful atomic bomb, this hydrogen bomb had been designed to hold itself together for an extra hundred-millionth of a second, thereby allowing its hydrogen isotopes to fuse and create a chain reaction of nuclear energy, called fusion, producing a potentially infinite amount of power, or yield. “What this meant,” Freedman explains, was that there was “a one-in-one-million chance that, given how much hydrogen [is] in the earth’s atmosphere, when Castle Bravo exploded, it could catch the earth’s atmosphere on fire.

in 2008, the CIA, the NSA, and DARPA launched a covert data-mining effort, called Project Reynard, to track World of Warcraft subscribers and discern how they exist and interact in virtual worlds.

Charles Townes told me that once, long ago, he was sharing his idea for the laser with John von Neumann and that von Neumann told him his idea wouldn’t work. “What did you think about that?” I asked Townes. “If you’re going to do anything new,” he said, “you have to disregard criticism. Most people are against new ideas. They think, ‘If I didn’t think of it, it won’t work.’ Inevitably, people doubt you. You persevere anyway. That’s what you do.” And that was exactly what Charles Townes did. The laser is considered one of the most significant scientific inventions of the modern world.

Michael Goldblatt came to DARPA with a radical vision. He believed that through advanced technology, in twenty or fifty years’ time, human beings could be the “first species to control evolution.

“The occasion was highly informal,” he remembered, in one of the only known written recollections of the meeting. “Maps were spread out on the floor, drinks were served, a dog kept crossing the demilitarized zone as top secret matters were discussed. Even though the subject was the Jason study, I was the only Jason present.” Seymour Deitchman did most of the talking. “It was, you know, a typical social occasion,” MacDonald recalled, except the participants were “just… deciding the next years of the Vietnam War.”

No one said, “But Dark Winter was only a game.” Lines were being blurred. Games were influencing reality. Man was merging with machine. What else would the technological advances of the twenty-first century bring?

human-machine interface, or what the Pentagon calls Human-Robot Interaction